A new book distills counterintuitive learnings from pop philosopher Alain de Botton’s The School of Life
Combining analysis, reflection and practical advice, it is pitched as ‘intelligent self-help’
If you run a cursory search on the internet, the results are likely to leave you with mixed feelings about picking up this book.
Alain de Botton, the Swiss-British writer who co-founded the educational company School of Life in 2008 (and has written the introduction to this volume), is arguably among the best-known names in the business. He turns out a best-seller every few years (The Consolations Of Philosophy and The Architecture Of Happiness are among his notable titles), his talks garner millions of views on YouTube, and he commands a large, loyal and steady fan following.
The School of Life franchise, headquartered in London, with chapters in 10 countries, is a unique venture that has turned the pursuit of emotional well-being into a successful capitalist business model.
Yet de Botton also happens to be one of the most viciously attacked “popular philosophers" alive. Indeed, that tag itself is the source of profound indignation for critics and professionals (namely, scholars and academics), most of whom consider his practice of philosophy insipid, anodyne and often outlandish. He is blamed for oversimplifying theories and for offering easy remedies, a bit like a mountebank, when people suffering from mental health problems spend fortunes to seek cures.
This may not be the most exciting incentive to read the book, but it is a necessary disclaimer. Depending on your acquaintance with practical philosophy, The School Of Life: An Emotional Education is either going to open your eyes to new ways of thinking or leave you dissatisfied, even tetchy. The book, written by several authors—many of them experts in their domains of specialization—distils some of the ideas propounded by the “global organization" in the past decade.
As the book explains, The School of Life is “committed to emotional education and well-being", primarily through the practice of psychotherapy offered to individuals, families, couples and organizations. Since its inception, it has published several books with catchy titles—How To Be Alone (Sara Maitland), How To Find Fulfilling Work (Roman Krznaric), How To Stay Sane (Philippa Perry), among others—every few years. Chatty and accessible, these books are not substitutes for actual psychotherapy—nothing can be—but are useful tools to interrogate our mental blocks, prejudices and self-perceptions, if only to disagree with them.
Combining analysis, reflection and practical advice, the series is pitched as “intelligent self-help". For a subset of avowedly high-minded readers, though, this phrase is an oxymoron. Labelling these books as “philosophy lite" and “filleted philosophy", many critics take a special delight in decimating them. In a scathing article in The New Republic in 2013, Victoria Beale dismissed the series and its leader thus: “If you’re a certain kind of amateur intellectual with self-improving impulses, it’s less vulgar to entrust your anxieties to a Cambridge- and Harvard-educated pop philosopher who speaks three languages (referring to de Botton) than to the hearty exhortations of Tony Robbins or Oprah."
This tone of high-nosed snootiness, laced with unironic condescension towards the so-called middlebrow reader, typifies almost all adverse reactions to The School of Life. It’s true you won’t find the subtlest of arguments or the soundest summaries of complex texts in these books. The perspectives often seem to apply overwhelmingly to heterosexual parents of a certain class and privilege, too, and are blindingly Eurocentric. But to dismiss their aims as venal and entirely without merit also smacks of intellectual elitism and brazen arrogance.
The present compendium is divided into five broad sections: “Self", “Others", “Relationships", “Work" and “Culture". Each of these categories dwells on specific problems pertaining to our established notions of love, sex, self-awareness, consumption and creativity. The style draws heavily on counterintuitive logic and is peppered with literary references. From Marcel Proust to classical Greek writers, the range of allusions is diverse, not always substantiated, and often the reason why irate critics accuse de Botton of casual name-dropping.
For such detractors, this mode of writing is akin to offering readers culture in the form of cotton candy. The latter can savour its momentary pleasure, without having to immerse themselves in the rigours of acquiring hard-earned knowledge. It’s seen as lazy, convenient and fodder for seemingly informed small talk at parties.
While there may be more than a grain of truth in these allegations, it’s also likely that de Botton’s brand of pop philosophy might help break down the barriers between so-called high and low culture. It’s more likely to inspire a curious reader to seek out Proust’s novels than a formidably learned article written in obtuse academic jargon. De Botton and his colleagues use dramatic examples (based on real or imaginary situations) to hammer in points that would be otherwise impossible for most of us to digest without sustained training in philosophy, literary analysis and knowledge of history. Their aim is to school us in ideas that we usually aren’t exposed to as students. “We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations," as de Botton writes in the introduction, “and relatively few fathoming shame and rage."
The “emotional education" that The School Of Life aims to put us through is usually riddled with counterintuitive provocations. Sample these two: “An inner voice was always an outer voice that we have—imperceptibly—made our own" and “A breakdown isn’t just a pain, though it is that too of course; it is an extraordinary opportunity to learn". These statements, on their own, may make you flinch at their platitudes. But within the larger context of the arguments they present, they don’t sound as incongruous. On the contrary, ideas such as these may act as antidotes to our long-standing cultural conditioning, where we are groomed to think about good and evil, success and failure, perfection and imperfection in fixed ways.
The School Of Life turns to the ancient Greek notion of living a good life to give us useful tools to calibrate our contemporary expectations. As classical tragedies show, a good person isn’t necessarily set up to be rewarded: You can be virtuous, morally upright, and yet be a spectacular failure. This truth is in stark opposition to what our elders hammer into our heads since childhood. In the same vein, the contemporary world puts too much emphasis on the idea of being authentic, at the cost of being rude, instead of simply being polite. Or expecting too high a return from tempestuous romantic love rather than learning to appreciate the comforts of marital stability. Such opinions are unfashionable now, if not hugely unpopular and problematic, and must come with provisos, but they are not entirely without benefit either.
Since enlightenment, via the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the idea of embracing our most authentic selves has gained primacy in our times. The worst manifestation of this trait is palpable on social media, where anything goes—from virulent abuse to mocking disdain—because many of us cannot imagine not speaking our minds any longer. While The School Of Life doesn’t dismiss the importance of knowing ourselves, it urges us to exercise restraint in our expressions, extols the need to be cautious and thoughtful over the impulse to be rash and unthinkingly cruel.
In the section “Charm", the writers say, “The warmly polite person knows that beneath the competent surface everyone is clumsy, frightened, desirous and fascinatingly unbalanced—and they bring this knowledge to bear in every encounter, whatever its outwardly forbidding nature." It’s easy to dismiss such insights as banal and obvious, but often hard to recall and implement them when the occasion demands.
Some of the most striking, as well as controversial, ideas appear in the section on relationships, which seeks to debunk the societal stereotypes most of us internalize in the course of our lives. For example: “Affairs begin long before there is anyone to have an affair with." Unpacking that sentence involves appreciating the virtues of paying close attention to one’s partner, picking up cues that an emotionally reticent spouse might be giving out, and learning to look at one’s role more critically.
For that matter, the idea of keeping secrets between couples isn’t necessarily a sign of betrayal. Under certain circumstances, absolute honesty “appears to place the union in mortal danger"; it may be too high a price to pay for a moment’s indiscretion, leading to consequences that aren’t desirable to either party. Keeping counsel with silence may sometimes be the best strategy, but it’s wisdom that is easily forgotten these days, when baring our heart and soul on social media has become the norm.